Apostrophes and place names

In Australia, it is quite simple, if ungrammatical and plain stupid. A bureaucratic body ( the Geographical Names Board) decided back in 1966 that no Australian place names should contain possessive apostrophes.  This means we are stuck with wrong-looking (and, in my view, plain wrong) names such as Devils Marbles (thankfully, we can use the Indigenous name, Karlu Karlu for that), Cooper Creek, Surfers Paradise, Crows Nest, Kings Cross, St Helens, St Georges Terrace, and the grammatical and spelling abomination that is the Melbourne suburb of Fishermans Bend (the Tasmanian town of St Marys is probably the second most grammatically appalling Australian place name). From mountain ranges and rivers through suburbs and down to the tiniest creek and laneway: no apostrophes, ever.  This rule does not apply to individual buildings, so St Paul’s, St Patrick’s and St Mary’s cathedrals, for example, retain their apostrophes.













A similar situation applies to place names in the United States of America, although five American place names, including Martha’s Vineyard, have been allowed to have apostrophes (for more information on these, read this excellent article by Paul Anthony Jones). But the United Kingdom retains its apostrophes: King’s Cross in London (unlike Kings Cross in Sydney), for example, does have an apostrophe.

The official name of Keoghs Creek in Tasmania has no apostrophe. While signwriters are often criticised for incorrect usage of apostrophes, this ‘error’ is one I am personally delighted to see.

Tasmania is interesting, because, while like all other jurisdictions it has banned possessive apostrophes, it does allow apostrophes of contraction in place names. The local government area of Break O’ Day, for instance, proudly has an apostrophe, as do Break O’ Day River and Break O’ Day Plains. But the ironic thing about the Break O’ Day municipality is that this is where the towns of St Marys and St Helens are located . . . (the apostrophe is hard to see in the sign, but it is there!).

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Photos:  Surfers Paradise sign by Tanisha Ngo on Unsplash; Fishermans Bend sign © CBRE Melbourne; Keogh’s Creek Walk courtesy of Shane McKeogh; all other images copyright and courtesy of Garry Coxhead, except Break O’ Day, which is taken from Google Maps.

14 comments on “Apostrophes and place names”

  1. Garry Neeman Reply

    Hi Susan – I came across your website when I Googled “dow place names usually carry an apostrophe” (that’s what I actually typed with a typo in the first word). I’d just seen a reference in FB to “Frazer’s Creek” as part of a new businesses logo.

    The possessive apostrophe stood out, so I consulted the NSW Geographical Name Board” website to check the punctuation – it’s “Frazers Creek”. However, I then wondered if there might be some place/feature names that carried an apostrophe. That’s when I found you.

    I’m very much an amateur grammarian.


  2. Phil Sands Reply

    As a visitor to Australia (from the UK) I was surprised to see how many Fish & Chip’s and even Fish & Chips’ shops there are!

    • Susan Reply

      Thanks Phil. Errant apostrophes are everywhere: perhaps this just shows that editors should be employed more widely! I hope you enjoy your time in Australia.

    • Susan Reply

      Hi Adi,

      I’m delighted that you would like to share this. Please do.

      Kind regards,


  3. Nicole Reply

    Well that solved a problem for me. I think it is crazy to be so cruel to grammar but I will have to accept this!

  4. Warren Reply

    Thanks for the post! I was curious as to why there are so many place names in Australia that are missing a possessive apostrophe. Your post has satisfied my curiosity. The decision by the Geographical Names Board is regrettable, as it helps perpetuate the misuse (or absence) of the possessive apostrophe in Australians.

  5. Sue Reply

    Great read! And I totally agree. It seems crazy to be teaching one rule to our children in schools yet there’s evidence across the country to the opposite. At the risk of going off-topic though, I have a query that I was hoping you might be able to answer… What would you call the “apostrophe” within some place names, such as d’Aguilar, for example, and how would you pronounce it? And I wonder whether these names too will suffer the same eventual fate as other place names with apostrophes.

  6. Jeremy Reply

    Have you tracked down the rationale for the 1966 decision? Might be interesting to understand a bit more about it.

  7. Cassowary Reply

    Break O’ Day is a place in Tasmania whose official name contains an apostrophe! I guess the decision only applies to possessive apostrophes.

    • Susan Reply

      Cassowary, thank you so much for alerting me to this! As a result, I have discovered that there is another Tasmanian place name, D’Entrecasteaux Channel, which also has an apostrophe. I’ve checked the Tasmanian Place Naming Guidelines (v10, available on the internet) and on p. 22 it says:
      An apostrophe to denote the possessive or associated ‘s’ must not be used in a place name. Examples include Andrews Creek not Andrew’s Creek, and Smiths Road not Smith’s Road.
      An apostrophe forming part of an eponymous name may be used, such as Break O’Day River, D’Entrecasteaux Channel and O’Brien Close.
      So there we have it! I must say, I think if we can have Break O’Day River (and Plains and municipality), we could really reinstate the apostrophe in Fishermans Bend!

  8. David Bernard Reply

    I just found this post. I had heard of the ruling, but had forgotten the details and the name of the accursed Geographical Names Board.

    I am toying with the idea of making it my life’s mission to reverse this stupid decision.

    • Susan Reply

      Dave, I’m glad you’ve found my post useful. The Geographical Names Board is now part of GeoScience Australia – and is probably renamed within that organisation. If you accept this mission (why do I suddenly feel that I’m in Mission: Impossible?), I’ll enthusiastically support you! I have occasionally thought of trying to petition the Commonwealth Government and GeoScience Australia to follow the US model and allow us at least one possessive apostrophe per state: I’d nominate Fishermans Bend (I shudder every time I type that) in Victoria.

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